Monsanto has been trying for years to gain approval for its genetically modified Roundup-Ready alfalfa seed. On January 27, 2011, it finally got the green light in the form of "deregulation." This means that farmers are free to plant GE alfalfa, and the USDA won't even be keeping track of who plants it where. There will be no tracking, no notification system, and no responsibility on the part of Monsanto for any business that is lost as a result of the genetic contamination that is certain to result. If the ruling stands, we can kiss organic dairy and beef goodbye, and many organic vegetable growers will have to switch the cover crops they use on their fields.
The Center for Food Safety is planning on dragging the issue back to court, where the organization has a good track record in recent years against Monsanto, even in the notoriously business-friendly U.S. Supreme Court, which in June upheld a ban on the planting of Roundup-Ready alfalfa until the USDA drafts an environmental impact statement (EIS).
The EIS was dutifully drafted and released in December 2010. The document airs the concerns expressed by the vast majority of the 200,000-plus comments on GE alfalfa, yet somehow concludes: "...consumer preferences for organic over GE foods are influenced in part by ethical and environmental factors that are likely unrelated to minor unintended presence of GE content in feed crops."
That's quite a use of the word "likely": When the organic rules were drafted in 1997, Big Ag tried very, very hard to include GE products in organic-labeled foods. In response to this attempt, USDA received over 275,000 comments against GE in organics. It was the largest number of comments USDA had ever received on a single issue. How USDA managed to conclude that consumers of organic food are likely unconcerned by contamination of organic products is a mystery -- at least, until we recall that Tom Vilsack, Obama's agriculture boss, used to fly around in a Monsanto corporate jet while governor of Iowa. During that same period he was also named "Governor of the Year" by the Biotechnology Industry Council.
Another word in the above statement that bears scrutiny is "minor," as in "minor unintended presence of GE content in feed crops." While it may be true that the public may in fact be OK with a little "minor" genetic contamination, there's nothing minor about the threat posed by Roundup-Ready alfalfa.
Alfalfa is the main forage crop for dairy cows and one of the principle foods for beef cows, especially grass-fed cattle. Alfalfa is a perennial, easily lasting five years once planted. And it's bee-pollinated, which means each year, every non-GE alfalfa plant within five miles of every GE alfalfa plant will likely be contaminated by GE genes.
According to the Organic Consumers Association, "...the massive planting of a chemical and energy-intensive GE perennial crop, alfalfa [is] guaranteed to spread its mutant genes and seeds across the nation; guaranteed to contaminate the alfalfa fed to organic animals; guaranteed to lead to massive poisoning of farm workers and destruction of the essential soil food web by the toxic herbicide, Roundup; and guaranteed to produce Roundup-resistant superweeds that will require even more deadly herbicides such as 2,4 D to be sprayed on millions of acres of alfalfa across the U.S."
When Tom Vilsack was named Agriculture Secretary by President Obama in late 2008, sustainable food activists felt they had been duped. The appointment followed a flood of opposition that resulted in Vilsack's name being removed from Obama's shortlist of USDA chiefs. This rope-a-dope took the wind out of opposition sails, and foodies let down their guard and began optimistically ruminating on who should run the agency. Then, out of the blue, Vilsack was appointed. Two years into Obama's administration, he appears to embody Obama's centrist approach, praising organic foods out of one side of his mouth while supporting GE foods out of the other, as if the two are separate but equal.
But the deregulation of GE alfalfa throws the possibility of coexistence out the window. And if history is any guide, the victims of genetic contamination will not only have no legal recourse, but they will face being sued by Monsanto for illegal use of its patented genes.
Given that public sentiment is overwhelmingly against genetically engineered food, it's not surprising that the Monsantos and Forage Genetics of the world are against labeling. What's telling is that retailers like Whole Foods also oppose labeling foods that have GE ingredients. Instead, the company has thrown its weight behind the effort to label foods that do not contain GE ingredients. This may sound like the same thing, but as Norman Braksick, president of Monsanto subsidiary Asgrow Seed Co., once said, "If you put a label on genetically engineered food you might as well put a skull and crossbones on it."
The Organic Consumer Association asserts that two-thirds of Whole Foods' product line is not organic, which means they could be contaminated by GE genes. It's no surprise Whole Foods doesn't want to put what amounts to a skull and crossbones on two-thirds of its products. Kristina Hubbard, director of advocacy for the Organic Seed Alliance, says that while hers and other organic watchdog groups oppose GE alfalfa, it's important to remember that conventional farmers are also put at risk by the ruling. Via email she told me:
"We believe USDA's decision to deregulate alfalfa puts the integrity of organic and non-genetically engineered seed, and thus the integrity of organic food, at risk. While the media paints this as organic versus biotechnology, it's important to note that conventional producers, including exporters, also feel threatened by GE alfalfa. In fact, the lead plaintiff in the alfalfa lawsuit is a conventional seed producer. I represent organic interests at OSA, but I've noticed that more conventional stakeholders are standing up in opposition to GE alfalfa than any other GE crop type (i.e., corn, soy, etc.) that has been deregulated."
This is an important point, but while individual conventional farmers are among the victims of genetic contamination, the organic industry as a whole is threatened by USDA's deregulation of GE alfalfa.
By deregulating its first perennial crop, which happens to be a bee-pollinated plant that is the foundation for the organic dairy and beef industries, USDA is breaking ground that cannot be easily repaired. Widespread genetic contamination has for years been threatening to make the entire GE discussion mute, because once everything is contaminated there will be nothing pure left to protect. In the same way, GE alfalfa threatens to make the whole idea of organic mute. Or at the very least, finally bring about the biotech industry's long-desired change of the organic standards to include GE ingredients. Once non-GE crops become impossible to find, what choice will we have?